This Day in Jewish History

1962: The Madam to the Mob Dies

Polly Adler morphed from an abused factory worker to the celebrated proprietor of one of New York's most popular bordellos in the 1930s.

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On June 9, 1962, Polly Adler, the most well-known “madam” of her day, died in Los Angeles, California.

Adler built a reputation by running a series of New York brothels that offered clients not only sex but also accommodations and good company. Many of those clients were in the fields of entertainment and crime, which almost guaranteed that Adler would become the focus of significant publicity. Additionally, after her retirement, Adler wrote a best-selling memoir, “A House Is not a Home,” which was made into a film of the same name a short time later.

Pearl Adler was born in Yanow, in what is today Byelorussia, on April 16, 1900, the oldest of nine children to the former Gertrude Koval and Morris Adler. Her early education was provided by the rabbi of her village, but her ambition to continue her schooling at the gymnasium in Pinsk was cut short when her parents sent her to the United States.

As the oldest child, she was to make the journey first and the rest of the family would follow. But the plan was foiled by the outbreak of World War I, which also cut Adler off from the monthly stipend her father, a tailor, initially sent her.

After living briefly with family friends in Massachusetts, Adler moved in with cousins in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she began working in a corset factory. When she was 17, her foreman raped and impregnated her and, after she had an abortion, her scandalized relatives told her to move out. She resettled across the river in Manhattan and continued doing factory work until a bootlegger-gangster she had become acquainted with offered her the following business arrangement: He would rent an apartment where she could live at no cost as long as he and the married woman with whom he was carrying on a relationship could show up as needed for their trysts.

Adler took a furnished two-room apartment on Manhattan’s elegant Riverside Drive, and soon began to procure women not only for Tony, the bootlegger, but also for other men. Many years later, in her memoir, she wrote that she felt no need to apologize for her decision to get involved in such work, “nor do I think, even if I had been aware of the moral issues involved, I would have made a different [choice].” It was her impression, she added, somewhat fatalistically, that “by the time there are such choices to be made, your life already has made the decision for you.”

She tried several times to get into other lines of work, but always kept coming back to running a bordello, keeping at it for more than two decades. During the years that she ran successively fancier brothels, her regulars included gangsters like bootlegger Dutch Schultz and organized-crime chief Charles “Lucky” Luciano, literati such as humorist Robert Benchley and playwright George S. Kaufman, both of whom apparently took advantage of the full range of Adler’s services, and Dorothy Parker, who just liked the ambiance at Polly’s. Mayor Jimmy Walker was also a habitue, as were a number of police officers.

In one of her most extravagant locations, in the Majestic apartment building, she had a “Chinese Room,” a bar designed to resemble King Tut’s tomb, and a tapestry from the French workshop Gobelin depicting, as Adler described it, “Vulcan and Venus having a tender moment.”

Adler was arrested a number of times, but only once was she convicted and imprisoned for her activities. That was in 1935, when she pleaded guilty both of running an “objectionable apartment,” as The New York Times described it at the time, and of possessing an obscene motion picture there. She received a 30-day prison sentence, of which she served 24 of them, and spent her time mopping the floors of the Women’s House of Detention.

More harrowing was an earlier, 1930 subpoena from a state supreme court commission, headed by Judge Samuel Seabury, that was charged with investigating official corruption. Seabury wanted to question Polly Adler about her connections with politicians and police officials, and to understand just how it was that none of her many arrests had ever ended in her prosecution. Tipped off by an anonymous phone call that she was about to be served a subpoena, Adler hightailed it to Miami, where she hid out for six months, until finally coming back and testifying.

Adler appeared before the Seabury Commission as a witness, not a potential defendant, and was struck at the time by a case of failed memory, unable to provide useful answers to most of the questions put to her, and giving away no incriminating information. In the end, she concluded that her appearance only “made my life easier.” There was, she wrote, “no more kowtowing to double-crossing Vice Squad men, no more hundred-dollar handshakes, no more phony raids to up the month’s quota. In fact, thanks to Judge Seabury and his not-very-merry men, I was able to operate for three years without breaking a lease.”

After a final arrest in 1943, Adler decided to retire, and moved to Burbank, CA. While living there as a “madam emeritus,” she finally attained a high school diploma, and worked with a ghostwriter on the publication of her memoir, which was published in 1953. The movie version, released in 1964, starred Shelly Winters as Adler.

Polly Adler died of cancer on this day in 1962.